In prison with John and Dietrich

The Advent texts do not allow us to ignore judgement.

Israel knew that God had judged them, and would judge them. It knew this judgement would apply to all peoples. We have inherited this knowledge. We know we are not our best selves. It is a true instinct.

But we are so deeply imbued with the sense that we deserve judgement that Christianity is often presented more as an escape from judgement, than the good news of God's love for us all.

The fact of judgement is assumed in the New Testament. In these books, it is real, and it is to be feared.

But our best selves are troubled by all this. Yes, God owns us. Perhaps it is God's world to do with as God wishes.  Yes, I deserve judgement.  But what of the baby child in Aleppo, and the millions like her? This is a child who cannot yet tell good from evil,  (Isa 7:15 — Israel knew innocence) but in one theory we use to lessen the offense of wholesale judgement, this little girl is still somehow infected by our inherited sinfulness. The notion that she is somehow deserving of all that is happening does not ring true for those of us who have had the gospel do its work on our hearts.

How does a God of love do this? Is not such a God far different from the One we have met? And if the child is indeed innocent, is not God a monster for failing to intervene?

If we answer the critics of such a god with arguments that God will not diminish our humanity by intervening and overruling the human freedom to choose, even to choose utter evil at the expense of the innocent,  we are showing our lack of humanity. We are showing the Gospel has not yet christened our hearts.

There are massive un-learnings involved in articulating a vision of God who does not punish some folk eternally, and who, instead, seeks to bring all folk into the life of the Kingdom of Heaven. Universalism, the doctrine that God saves every one, changes every thing. That change includes some of our most deeply held traditions about the nature of God.

I wonder if something of us does not instinctively recognise the magnitude of the change in our lives which a true acceptance of the totality of God's love would require. It would explain our reluctance to abandon notions of hell and eternal punishment. Or perhaps we cling to them because we believe we deserve judgement, and cannot believe that God forgives us, unless we see punishment being handed out somewhere in the picture. Either way, if we are not outraged by the morality of a God who punishes even the innocent, our hearts need much healing.

 

The notion of judgement is not all bad news. Judgement reflects goodness. It is a partial truth.

Firstly, it means God is involved. God cares. We are important; we matter. What we do matters to God. We are not alone.

At its best, judgement means God is just! God cares for the poor and the suffering. God does not give the powerful and the rich carte blanche. We live in an ordered universe.

Judgement is honest about us. It recognises our universal shortcomings and failures. It recognises the depravity which lies not far beneath the surface of our culture, and of our own selves. Judgement is honest to God about the nature of us, and we would be only a poor humanity without this recognition.

And judgement means God is powerful. Judgement asserts God will have God's way. Judgement asserts that God's vision for Earth and Humanity will be realised. The Kingdom of Heaven will be.

But judgement, as we see it in our scriptures, is not a divinely ordained "fact." It is a "working theory." It is an attempt to explain the mysterious and deeply troubling experience of

a God who loves us, who is just, who is powerful, and who heals
our own personal acts of injustice and evil
the pervasiveness of evil
and God's apparent inaction in the face of this evil.

How can these contradictions exist together?

One short answer is that they cannot; therefore, there is no God.

All "working theories" for living face untidy facts that don't fit the theory; pieces left over from the jigsaw. Part of our Christianity comes from the fact that, for us, the untidy fact of experiencing God, means we can’t accept the "no God" solution. But this leaves us with an equally painful and untidy fact: the outrageous suffering of the innocent prolonged by the inaction of God.

Can we improve upon the working theory we have inherited. What would an improved working theory say about God? How would it benefit those who suffer? And what would it do to us, for our working theory of life shapes who we become.

The biblical imagery of judgement reflects an undeniable reality of life on Earth. We are plagued with horrific and brutal violence. Judgement is also imagined with images of famine and drought. But we know the primary cause of famine is our violence and greed. (See, for example, here or here)

In other words, judgement is what happens when we do not live well. Judgement begins when we choose not to do well. And judgement is also what happens because we are incapable of being what we know our best selves could be, and incapable of what our best selves desire to be.

This is important: judgement is real. Aleppo, Biafra, Auschwitz, the Somme… Judgement is wholesale, indiscriminate, and vicious. Although we are at the centre of its genesis, judgement is beyond our control.

But judgement is not God's will. God does not do judgement. Judgement is consequent. It is the inevitable result which follows our failures. God wants to rescue us from our failures; to save us.

Judgement is not what some have called the "impersonal wrath" of God, because it is not God's doing. We need to abandon and grow beyond the old working theories of the wrath of God. We now know judgement is us.

God is not wrathful. When God is killed on the cross— the son in this culture is the presence of his father— and when God comes back, there is no wrath. He said, "Do not be afraid." And, "Peace be with you." There is no wrath, there is only forgiveness.

But we should keep the word judgement. It reminds us of our wrong. It tells us that we have fallen short.  It tells us we have chosen things other than love. It confronts us with our inability to live well even when we desire to. And it warns us of the consequences of not heeding the call to compassion and justice in all our living. Judgement reminds us of the deadly consequences of our choices not to choose life. (Deut 30:15ff)

But this new working theory has two untidy pieces left over.

One is the inevitable cry that we are changing the plain meaning of scripture. I address my former fundamentalist self: All preachers, all gospel writers, all Christians always,  have chosen their own interpretation of the bible and ignored and contradicted certain passages. You, too. This is an inescapable part of reading and interpreting scripture.

So this objection is not a piece left out of the puzzle, but rather a scrap of rubbish off the floor. "A fundamentalist is someone who thinks they don't have a hermeneutic," said Richard Beck. In an article titled Emotional Intelligence and Sola Scriptura, no less.

The serious piece of left-over puzzle which challenges our comfortable life is that we have made more obvious the fact that God has limited power; we have implied that God is not all powerful in the traditional sense. God doesn't do judgement, we have said. Well then, if God were all-powerful, and if God were just— if it's not God doing or willing it all!— then wouldn't God arrange things to stop the evil and suffering?

In the end, we find the wrath of God is a ploy for us to avoid the fact that God is not omnipotent. We hide behind a sophistry of God delaying judgement, or some such, to avoid the starkly obvious: if God truly loves humanity, especially the poor, especially the innocent, and if God is truly just, then God is not all powerful or… God is a monster.

In our fear of death, we would rather have a God who is a monster, albeit preferably to other people, than face the fact that God is not all powerful. Because if we know, that is; shout loudly in the dark, that God is all powerful, we are relieved of some of the burden of trust, that is; faith, that God  can and will preserve us. We manufacture a cheap, and very nasty, guarantee for our life.

•••

So, this advent, John is in his prison cell worrying that Jesus is not wielding the axe of judgement, fearing for life, zealous for justice. And John is not able to see that if God would and could do this kind of judgement, then God would  not be the mercy and justice for which he longs. In his cell, Bonhoeffer's faith was that

God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us…

I quote this from a previous post exploring the nature of weakness, and some of Richard Beck's thoughts on this. Beck goes on to say

Weakness is all

that is to be said about the power of God in the world. God's power is weakness. Straight up. There is no Big Power sitting behind the weakness of the cross backing it up with a reservoir of force. The weakness of God exhausts the meaning of what it means to say God is "powerful."

And the only way that we are truly with God is when we repent of our violence, repent of the violent all powerful God, and live in contradiction to that world. We know where that may take us.

I come back to my questions above: What would an improved working theory say about God? How would it benefit those who suffer? What would it do to us? Beck is a research psychologist. He is well placed to observe our selves and say

… a whole lot is riding on how we think about heaven, hell and judgment. Get these wrong and everything goes wrong. If you're going to believe in God you better get your eschatology right.

In fact, when we think about God, about transcendence, Beck says

I think the thing that poisons transcendence is eschatology. (Ibid)

How we think about judgement affects how we live, and how we live with others. The old saying goes: be careful how you imagine the world, for that is how it will be. And another is like it: Be careful how you imagine your God, for that is how you will be.

By and large, Jesus has been bifurcated. Liberal Christians tend to latch on to Jesus' message of love and mercy. Conservative Christians tend to latch on to Jesus' message of judgment.

This division is inevitable as liberal and conservative Christians are working with incompatible eschatological visions--love wins versus eternal conscious torment--which are imported back onto Jesus. This forces you to pick and choose material from Jesus that supports your eschatological vision. Thus, two Jesuses emerge from the pages of the gospels, one liberal and one conservative. Beck

Each of us is imprisoned in and by our working theory of the world, and so we sit alongside John and Dietrich. But who of these two would we wish to be?

Andrew Prior (Dec 2016)

 

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